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Anticipating the Future of Generational Insights

Anticipating the Future of Generational Insights

Jennifer Murtell

patterned illustration of faces of all ages being grabbed by claws

How brands can best respond to individual consumer desires of diverse targets while maintaining a focused, singular voice

Lifestyle branding, once a term reserved for brands with intangible benefits and aspirational vapor, has blanketed the landscape. Examples of lifestyle branding can be found in even the most functional categories. But through the lens of lifestyle, we still see the powerful strategies of traditional demographic targeting: the semiotics, tone and brand voice of marketing strategies that appeal specifically to age groups or generations.

We can see these strategies manifest in the insightful and psychology-informed differences between ads directed at baby boomers versus their Generation X and millennial counterparts.

There is an inherent tension between customized brand experiences and universal, purpose-driven brand building. How can brands find their happy place, a resonant position in the landscape where every segment feels like the brand experience is uniquely designed for them?


First, let’s look at the attitudinal and behavioral diversity of consumers at large, and how brands are instigating connection and conversation.

Boomers: Respect and Control

The United Airlines Explorer Card campaign is about collecting maximum travel rewards for everything you do. Actress Tracee Ellis Ross, and the dynamic spokesperson for United’s Chase credit card, makes indulgent proclamations of getting ‘rewarded!’ with every move she makes, while service people around her treat her like a VIP. Her expressions of delight and sideways glances signal the deep need for relevance, respect and well-deserved indulgence. Baby boomers are moving into the phase of their lives where they feel entitled to ‘cash in’ on their lifetime of hard work and wealth-building, and it’s clearly reflected in these spots.

Anoro, a medication that manages COPD, is another example that manifests overlapping codes of meaning in its creative campaign. One testimonial-style line declares, “COPD tries to say go this way—I say, I’ll go my own way.” In this clever message, we see consumers’ desire for control and autonomy in their health decisions as they age—control they fear they’re losing. The music choice is perfect: Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” hearkens to a generational zeitgeist of freedom and rebellion, while remaining benign and optimistic. The brand deepens resonance by delivering its message with an overarching tone of individualism, confidence and empowerment.

Gen X: Cynicism and Self-Soothing

When insurance company Esurance rebranded, it tapped into a meta-universe where cynicism is hero and self-deprecation rings true. Its dry-witted spokesperson Dennis Quaid constantly breaks the fourth wall, acknowledging that shopping for insurance is an inherently miserable process. “Let’s be honest: Insurance isn’t sexy. It’s confusing, it’s a hassle.’ Esurance’s approach to radical transparency lays bare the crux of the Gen X condition: deep skepticism about marketing, advertising and, in a broader sense, capitalism itself. As the first generation of economic decline that didn’t do as well as their parents, Gen X wears this cynicism on their sleeves.

Buick’s holiday campaign is a manifesto for the “S(YOU)V”: the vehicle that you gift yourself. In a series of simple vignettes where consumers surprise themselves with a Buick (one vehicle has a tag inscribed with “From: me to: me”), the campaign taps powerfully into the deeply felt tension that Gen Xers live with—that their pride of independence and self-sufficiency comes with an undercurrent of resentment. No one is going to hand them anything, so they might as well treat themselves. The celebratory energy and signoff copy (‘Don’t forget you this holiday season’) puts a lighthearted spin and softer edge on a sharp but crucial insight.

Millennials: Idealism and Uncertainty

With the millennial generation came a new perspective on living: “You only live once,” “living your best life” and “fear of missing out” are all modern aphorisms that, though cliched, uncannily define their approach. In the face of climate collapse, economic shifts and workforce instability, millennials live with a cognitive dissonance between high expectation and profound uncertainty. It’s no wonder that brands are tapping into their longing for fairness and even entitlement more so than with messages of indulgence and lifestyle fantasy. One of the most aspirational of demographics, this generation of dreamers longs for luxury on a budget.

In response, the Jaguar E-PACE ad campaign below presents dynamic, creative lifestyle vignettes of entrepreneurs in the gig economy—an accurate representation of urban millennial lives. The copy, “I spend too much time in my car to drive something boring” and “I need the utility of an SUV, but I want the beauty of a Jaguar” projects an air of confidence and expectation that millennials working for themselves can find a reasonable option in the brand. But the lifestyle dissonance is obvious: The two young Jaguar owners depicted in the commercial are a florist and a painter with median salaries in 2018 of $42,000 and $53,000, respectively.

It’s true that the principles of lifestyle branding dovetail neatly with demographic insight. In broad strokes, generations deal with unique cultural contexts, seismic economic shifts, civic and political realities, and rapidly evolving technology in totally different ways. Their coping mechanisms and internal narratives about the world they live in can be drastically different. Indeed, their lives are drastically different. This is why lifestyle branding has been such a powerful force in our industry in the past 20 years, and shows no signs of slowing down.

The question for marketers is how can keep up with these rapidly shifting landscapes instigating a slow collapse of more conventional generational insights. As generations begin to rapid-cycle every two or three years, how will we respond?

Illustration by Bill Murphy

As vice president of strategy, Asia Pacific, at Marks, part of SGS & Co, Jennifer Murtell leverages design thinking to solve business challenges, develops brand portfolio architecture, whitespace models and positioning for a variety of leading consumer packaged goods brands.